Duo of assistants follow Malzahn’s path

Even the fast paced Malzahn needs some help.

The pressure to win in the SEC permeates every facet of its respective football programs.

From the round-the-clock recruiting all the way to how landscapers cut the grass on game days, there isn’t a decision made that doesn’t at least consider how it will affect the team’s ability to win more games and win them now.

At Auburn, nowhere is it displayed more than by the homegrown flavor of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s duo of right-hand assistants both of whom have known him since the birth of his fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense.

In graduate assistant Rhett Lashlee, Malzahn has the second player who ever quarterbacked the offense he runs today. In offensive quality control assistant Elijah Drinkwitz, Malzahn has the first brave soul who had to fill his shoes as the offensive coordinator at Springdale (Ark.) High after he infamously joined Houston Nutt at Arkansas.

Together, they’ve helped make life easier for one of the biggest offensive names in college football by simply being themselves — longtime followers and practitioners of Malzahn’s unique take on scoring points.

“Time is of the essence,” Malzahn said. “There’s not time to break people in, especially in a situation like this where we have to find ways to get better each year.”

Auburn received more than 500 applications from high school and college coaches across the country when its offensive quality control position opened during the offseason. If Drinkwitz would have declined when Malzahn originally contacted him to gauge his interest, maybe the 499 others would have had a chance.

Fair? Maybe not on the surface.

It’s all about who you know, a methodology that is certainly not unique to college football.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who can do this job,” Drinkwitz said. “I think it’s just a great benefit for him to work with people he knows and trusts. I think no matter what you do, you want to work with people you know and trust and they know what you’re about.”

‘No-brainer’ for Lashlee
Lashlee first met Malzahn as a seventh grader. Malzahn, then a first-year coach at Shiloh Christian, was running a pro-style offense. The next year, Malzahn unveiled his patented attack, which helped advance Shiloh Christian to the state championship game and made the school instantly famous as the nation’s top offense.

Lashlee, as an eighth grader running the same offense, was hooked.

“It just kind of exploded,” Lashlee said.

Lashlee played a big part in the eruption. He started at quarterback for Malzahn as a sophomore and led his team to three consecutive title appearances, winning two. On the way, he threw 171 touchdown passes, a national record, and saw Malzahn leave for Springdale High before his senior season.

Lashlee played under Nutt as a walk-on for two seasons before he returned to Springdale as a volunteer quarterbacks coach with Malzahn. He was one of Mitch Mustain’s direct supervisors for Mustain’s junior and senior seasons, the two most offensively successful seasons in school history, before he followed Malzahn to Arkansas as a graduate assistant.

“The way coach is, the way he is with his quarterbacks because of what he expects out of them in his system, he naturally becomes close with them,” Lashlee said. “He’s one of the main reasons why I realized what I wanted to do with my life was coach and impact young guys’ lives.”

Lashlee stayed in Arkansas when Malzahn took over as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator. He was in the process of getting married, so he opted to use his freshly earned marketing degree and take a gig with
VYPE Magazine in northwest Arkansas.

When his phone rang days after Malzahn took a job under Gene Chizik at Auburn, Lashlee barley let Malzahn get the words out of his mouth.

“Not going to Tulsa made no sense logically, but it was the best thing for me and my family at the time and it turns out it was a great blessing,” Lashlee said.

“It was a no-brainer.”

It’s all Drinkwitz knows
Drinkwitz’s path to his current job is an example of networking at its finest.

In 1998, as a sophomore linebacker at Alma High, Drinkwitz accompanied his coach Frank Vines to an Arkansas high school all-star game. That’s where he first met Malzahn, who was serving as one of the game’s offensive coordinators.

Drinkwitz didn’t let Malzahn escape without letting him know just how interested he would be in coaching under him one day. Never mind that Drinkwitz still had a couple years of high school to finish.

“I had a pretty good understanding of what we were doing and how our football program was run,” Drinkwitz said. “But I wanted to learn something new and something different and mesh the philosophies if I ever got the chance to coach on my own.”

Drinkwitz got his first big opportunity with Malzahn in 2004, when he joined his staff at Springdale High as an offensive line assistant. Two years later, Malzahn was at Arkansas and Drinkwitz was in charge of the offense that fans expected to outscore the basketball team.

Drinkwitz didn’t know any better way to put up 425 yards and 38 points per game than by running Malzahn’s offense. He even explained the year-by-year differences just like Malzahn does when talking about how the Auburn offense will look differently with Cameron Newton at quarterback in 2010.

“There (were) a few tweaks and adjustments here and there based on what our personnel was,” he said. “It was probably 95 percent the same.”

Drinkwitz remained the offensive coordinator at Springdale up until Malzahn buzzed him on his cell phone in the spring, the ultimate reward that was 12 years in the making.

“I don’t know how many people applied, I don’t know how many people they talked to,” Drinkwitz said. “All I know is I’m here. I’m thankful for that every day.”

‘Right-hand’ men
Their titles are ambiguous by design, but their tasks are plentiful.

While serving as Trooper Taylor’s “right-hand man” with the wide receivers, Lashlee is near the top of the chain of command with sideline communications. The complexity of Malzahn’s offense and how it’s signaled to the quarterback is well-documented, as it features a numbered tote board on wheels conducted by the backup quarterback.

It’s an operation that can’t go without proper supervision.

“It’s so important to what we do,” Malzahn said. “He has that ability that even if I make a wrong formation because we’re going fast, he’ll make it right. Those things are real valuable.”

Drinkwitz does his work behind the scenes, breaking down film to see how Auburn’s opponents will likely attack Malzahn’s offense and “to kind of predict what they’re going to do within our base system,” Malzahn said.

“I think the fact he’s been an offensive coordinator, even on the high school level, that’s very important,” Malzahn said. “He’s broken down people with this offense and knows what they’re giving you, so that’s very valuable.”

Malzahn’s other quality control assistant, Casey Woods, came to him via a recommendation for Taylor. Woods, whom Malzahn considers his “right-hand man” by helping him grade film and produce film cut-ups, played under Taylor at Tennessee, where he was a three-year letterman from 2005-07.

Hired in 2009, Woods has been a quick learner. He’s had no other choice.

“For what we do, there’s very few people out there that actually already know it, that you don’t have to train,” Malzahn said. “It’s a true team effort. Those guys deserve a whole lot of the credit.”

agribble@oanow.com | 737-2561

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